Long before I started More Than Our Crimes, I lived in the Gaza Strip for three years and founded a storytelling initiative called We Are Not Numbers. The Palestinian youth of Gaza are among the most stereotyped and misunderstood individuals in the world, often referred to with numbers – of missiles thrown, people killed, houses destroyed. But behind the numbers is a richly nuanced humanity, and the project is designed to give a platform to their many personal narratives. More Than Our Crimes is remarkably similar, giving voice to the many individuals confined behind the impenetrable walls of our federal prisons, known only by their convictions and the number assigned them by the system.
It thus seems almost natural for my two passions to collide. One of my network members recently introduced me to his cellmate, a Palestinian-American named Shukri Baker. It was a name I already knew. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and at the height the Washington-led “war on terror,” the FBI accused the directors of an Islamic charity called the Holy Land Foundation of funding terrorism.* One of the organization’s founders was Shukri Baker. And he was sentenced to 65 years in prison. Since finding each other, we have begun a correspondence. Below I share some of his answers to my questions:
I’ve been reading your poetry blog. When and how did your love of writing evolve?
I started writing in the fifth grade, and my teachers discovered I had a talent for Arabic. The language captured my imagination, bringing something out in me that had been untapped until then.
I guess I should back up a little: My Palestinian father travelled half the way around the world to meet my blonde, green-eyed, Italian Brazilian mother. I was born in Brazil, making me a Brazilian citizen.
In 1964, my father decided to resettle in Palestine to be with his aging parents and care for the land. I went to school there and learned Arabic. But after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, we moved to Kuwait, where I was educated until high school. I continued my relish for Arabic and I started writing poems at age 13 or so. But then a lot of other things—life—intervened.
During my incarceration, however, a rush of desire to write overtook me. There were so many situations, so many sentiments and so many complex feelings that needed to be expressed. My imagination allowed me to use words to go where no walls, razor wire or massive towers could stand in the way. I poured my pain, hope and love into poetry. I felt carried and cradled. I also paint when I can get supplies like acrylics and canvas, but I can always write.
What kind of awareness of and sympathy for the Palestinian cause do you find in prison?
Sadly, most inmates have a razor-thin knowledge of the Palestinian cause. Many don’t even know what Palestine. I say Palestine, they say “Pakistan?” Still, when I share my story and people read Miko Peled’s book, they tell me they can’t believe how their own government dealt with me. In fact, the Holy Land Foundation was the only U.S. institution to be shut down by an executive order in response to a direct request from an office of a foreign government (the late Ariel Sharon, Israel’s prime minister at the time).
Do you see any parallels between the plight of the Palestinians and American Blacks?
Oppressors borrow leaves from each other’s books. Fear drives people to demonize the other to justify the brutality they mete out. The plight of the Blacks in this society isn’t really distinct from the plight of the Palestinians. It’s all about subjugation and stigmatization, leading to a false sense of righteous superiority in the oppressor’s mind. A consensus reality is then created in which Blacks, like Palestinians, find themselves embroiled in a daily struggle to attain recognition and social justice. The struggle is one, but the tentacles of injustice are many.
In one of my blog posts, I wrote this about my team at the Holy Land Foundation: Simply because we were people of color, with a different religion, language, ethnicity and culture, we received treatment comparable to what the Blacks received and that prompted Martin Luther King Jr. to rise up and resist, declaring an unconditional rejection of the status quo. No one on our jury was an Arab, a Middle Easterner or a Muslim. None could relate to the five men who sat before them, accused of making terrorists more terrorizing by giving flu shots, bread and milk to sick and starving children. It is because we were “different” men, helping different people, that we have received a different measure of constitutional protection.
American Blacks are resisting racism and systemic bigotry. They want an inclusive justice for them and their children. Palestinians have a much longer and perilous bridge to cross, because whereas Blacks have made many strides forward, Palestinians still lack the freedom to exist on their own, the freedom to be and become. However, while we may be on two different paths, the destination is one.
When deliberation comes to an end. The verdict will say:
Guilty. Guilty. Guilty.
Not I, but he.
Not my neck, but his knee.
Not the man who knew how to raise fine men and women,
but the madness that never knew that not being humane
was not being human.
To what extent were you aware of mass incarceration in America, and its racist nature, before you were convicted?
I knew very little about America’s mass incarceration problem. I hadn’t been exposed to the “underworld” of this country and I hadn’t met any previously incarcerated people. However, I did know, in general, that the system was rigged against minorities.
And then you experienced it firsthand. How many prisons have you been sent to?
I was first sent to the detention center in Seagoville, Texas, for about 16 months. That was followed by the Communication Management Unit (Terre Haute, IN) for two years, USP** Terre Haute for two years, and now, USP Beaumont (Texas) for eight years and counting. There have been bad and not-so-bad experiences, but the worst was the CMU, where the restrictions on phone calls and visits were unreasonable and downright inhumane. Visits were rarely permitted and were far in between. About every four months, my family managed to visit me. They traveled about 840 miles, a 14-hour road trip, to see me for a few hours from behind a glass divider, connected by a phone monitored by the Counterterrorism Unit in Virginia. There was only one visitation room, thus only one family could visit at a time. So, families would compete to book a visit in advance. One time, my family arrived after a very long trip from our home in Dallas and to their shock, the visit was cancelled because the phone wasn’t working that day!
Those trips were especially hard on my daughter Sanabel, who was slowly dying from cystic fibrosis, her breathing labored and her physical strength whittled down to nothing. To visit me along with her mom and three sisters, she had to endure the 16-hour road trip from Dallas to Terre Haute. She couldn’t travel by air because she had to be on oxygen 24/7 and no carrier would take her with an oxygen tank. When she arrived and I had the chance to see her, it was only from behind a thick sheet of glass, unable to touch. It was as though I had a contagious disease (paternal love) from which I had to protect my children. During my two years there, I was never allowed to touch my dying child. It was torture when I was awake, and torture in my sleep.
When I was finally transferred to the penitentiary next door, I was able to see Sanabel in a contact visit. But we had that “privilege” only twice before she took her last breath on May 14, 2013. That was the most cruel treatment I had to endure in the last 14 years.
How do you deal with prison staff? I know how callous and racist they can be.
It’s true that some are outright racists. Others mind their own business, doing the bare minimum and not speaking up when others do wrong. And a few are empathetic, with real hearts, although they are measured in showing much of it. The environment can be intimidating to everyone, the prisoners as well as the sympathetic officers. Good people are there, but they are told they are dealing with dangerous criminals and “terrorists” so what can we expect?
My conclusion is this: Both the bad and the good always exist (or coexist). Those who show me disregard, I brush off and go on with my day with the attitude that I’ve chosen for myself. I approach the COs with the attitude that they’re just doing their jobs. Fakery or disrespect are not my thing. And I’ve come to realize that most of the officers are simple people who want to come to work and go home safely. When we are able to tap into our shared humanity, things tend to go in the right direction. Plus, wearing a smile and moving with a sense of humor and dash of levity helps.
What would you say to others on the outside, about whether American prisons really ‘rehabilitate’?
No. My main beef with the incarceration industry is the lip service it pays to real rehabilitation. Drug and alcohol use is rife among most inmates. Two people in my unit died from drug and alcohol overdoses within a span of five days. There is little incentive for good behavior, and collective punishment exacerbates the gap between good behavior and reward. Education could use a major boost instead of the Botoxed approach, the cosmetic “injection” they make from time to time to look compliant with the department’s mission. Little can be accomplished due to the inferior quality of programs offered most of the time and the unending lockdowns that make consistency difficult to achieve. After all, you can’t expect students to pass the GED test with no classes or just an hour of schooling per week.
Programming is supposed to help prisoners pull away from the gravity of the ego, bad company and habits that damage bodies, poison minds and corrupt souls. The BOP offers a myriad of programs, but if my experience is a true guide, I haven’t seen many men change significantly during or after its offerings. So, I do what I can. I’m among a handful of college-educated individuals in this institution and I’m an educator by nature. I taught GED for over three years in this institution and am the No. 1 tutor in terms of success rate. Around 85% of the students I taught passed their GED exams.
In part because of this track record, I qualified a long time ago to be transferred to a medium-security institution. I have low points, much lower than is required for me to transfer. I don’t know the rationale (or the politics) behind keeping a 63-year-old model inmate in a maximum-security institution where every day brings with it possible peril.
Have you managed to find any ‘flashes of joy,’ or a least an imitation of it, in prison?
The access to Allah that my faith gives me at any given moment, an access that charges my batteries and washes away whatever residues a nasty day may have deposited in my psyche, is my greatest source of happiness. And I find joy in teaching my GED students how to fall in love with math and keep that “romance” growing. Then there are the countless men and women who are out there advocating for me, who share my core beliefs in peace and justice. That knowledge helps me absorb bad prison encounters with a dismissive attitude.
Do you try to share your resilient outlook with others in prison with you?
The minute I began to absorb my new reality in prison, which was not an easy endeavor, I readied myself to fight back. And I used my training as a motivational speaker, teacher and mentor. In response, people gravitated toward me in their difficult moments. I found myself in the mix of it all, inspiring, counseling, saving lives. It was in the Terre Haute penitentiary that I discovered the power of going into people’s lives without much “knocking at their doors.” By that I mean I have developed the “audacity” needed to walk up to people and ask them if they are doing all right. I don’t ask permission to extend a hand and help. I don’t think I violate anyone’s space when I feel their agony from afar or sense a silent call for help, which would have been voiced except for pride and insecurity. Many inmates call me “pops,” “father” or “uncle.” And it gives me pleasure to listen, wrap my arms around their issues and counsel. It lifts my spirits too. I learn from others and that helps me hone my own emotional intelligence.
I’ll share a story with you. One day, a man sat stooped like a broken sunflower on a bench in the prison yard. I felt a sudden nudging to stop and sit next to him, wrap my arm around his neck and ask him: “What’s wrong? Talk to me, brother.” About an hour later, as it was time to head back to our blocks, we shook hands and said goodbye. He said, “Thank you for saving my life.” “What do you mean?” I asked. The young man told me he had been contemplating suicide all day. Since then, I have made a special point of going up to strangers and being their comforter and mentor.
As an imam for the Muslim inmates, I give Friday sermons as well as classes on spiritual matters. That makes me accessible to people and their issues. I help them realize this: When we feel trapped and look beyond the crunch of the moment, we start to hear keys click and doors open. Whatever it is that is taxing us will one day ease. Nothing is permanent unless we cling to it and allow it to cling to us, devouring us inside out.
The things that fulfill our purpose in life and add substance to our existence are what we should seek out, so they become us and we become them. How do you cause the human in you to grow giant? Give a piece of yourself away: Open a door, lend a hand, give a hug, induce a smile, return a favor, ignore a mistake, share a candy bar. There are many ways to do it.
Others from the Holy Land Foundation have gone home, but you have so many years left on your sentence. How do you stay optimistic?
Faith is the ocean upon which I have been sailing afloat all these years. My boat is my strong belief in my innocence. My sail, my openness to all possibilities. The wind, the show of solidarity and love I have been blessed to receive from the outside. I know my purpose on earth hasn’t yet expired.
Everyone has a mission, and my mission is still in progress. I feel significant and I help make others feel the same.
My journey to freedom
began the instant my eyes landed
on the cuffs on my hands
and saw, instead,
some wings that are ready — any day —
to spread and fly me away.
If seeing is believing, I see it coming.
How? I don’t keep my eyes closed,
in fear of great heights.
This is why I believe I’m coming home. Injustice has no real legs. The truth will bust out of its hiding place. The truth will wake the slumberous conscience of the world. I petitioned for clemency during President Obama’s time and I’m still waiting. I didn’t file for compassionate release yet. But it’s something to consider down the road when the time is ripe. The day will come.
* The Holy Land Foundation was founded in 1989 to finance medical care and humanitarian aid for impoverished Palestinians. As documented in a book by Miko Peled and an Aljazeera documentary, the case against the foundation was part of the disproportionate targeting of Muslim charities that was a hallmark of the American response to 9/11. However, it was based on unsubstantiated charges and lacked even basic due process protections.
** USP stands for U.S. penitentiary. Penitentiaries are the highest security level for federal prisons.